The Eels have come away with their single most exciting and impressive win of the 2017 season, and arguably their greatest moment since the most recent salary cap crisis, with a 24-12 victory over the Broncos at ANZ Stadium on Friday night. In twenty of the most exciting minutes of football this year – Origin included – Brisbane put down two back-to-back tries six minutes in, only for the Eels to respond with two of their own shortly after, both of which were assisted by Mitchell Moses, in what will surely come to be seen as one of his most iconic games in Parramatta colours.
From there, both teams struggled to put down points until the last six minutes, when Parramatta bagged two more – and Kirisome Auva’a made it a double – with Moses once again proving instrumental in the action. During the intervening fifty minutes, the pace barely slowed, making it feel as if finals footy had come early, and both teams were in the midst of a sudden death match. Rarely is rugby league as exciting, visceral and momentous as this, with the Eels fans in the crowd going wild as the team rose to heights they’ve only glimpsed intermittently over the last couple of years.
Parra started out strong too, putting in a stellar set four minutes in that started with Radradra putting his hands up in the air to catch Milford’s bomb on the full. From there, the Eels marched down the field, with their big men putting in a series of spectacular hit-ups, and Radradra himself managing to boot the ball back down the other end of the field. Their supremacy was short-lived, however, with Darius Boyd quickly sending the ball over to the edge on the subsequent set in order to elude the compressed Parramatta defence. From there, Roberts took possession, cruising up the side of the field and returning the Steeden to his fullback just as Radradra put him down.
Regaining possession, Boyd ran a bit further and then flicked the ball over to Jordan Kahu in turn, who was in prime position to score, but inexplicably chose to pass the football back inside. Whether Kahu thought Takairangi was closer than he was, or had misjudged the pace of it all, neither Boyd, nor Milford, further inside, were expecting him to pass again, and the ball hit the turf in what initially looked to be a lacklustre end to such a powerful and propulsive Brisbane set, only for Milford to show some quick thinking by landing on it and then popping it across to Matt Gillett, who slammed over the line for the first try of the night.
As if that weren’t a resounding enough decimation of the Eels’ opening momentum, the Broncos crashed over again on the restart, on the back of another damaging run up the side of the field. This time, however, it was the opposite side, with Jonus Pearson collecting the ball from Tautau Moga and doing a pretty good impersonation of Roberts as he stormed up the sideline, providing the Broncos with the field position to put in their most elegant move of the night so far – a sweeping piece of play that felt more like a training run than a competitive match, as the ball moved through Milford, Hunt and Boyd, before Gillett opted for a deft backwards flick pass to put Roberts over the line.
So quickly had the four points followed on the back of Gillett’s own try that it effectively felt like a continuation and consolidation of the mad dash from Roberts that had set it all up in the first place, as the Broncos added the extras once again to put the scoreline at 12-0 with less than eight minutes on the clock.
If the Broncos’ dominance was extraordinary, however, the Parramatta comeback was even more incredible, not merely because of how rapidly and viscerally it occurred, but because it depended on a pair of try assisting passes from Mitchell Moses, whose tenure in the blue and gold jersey cemented and came into its own during these opening minutes. His first moment of brilliance occurred a couple of minutes after Roberts crashed over, as the young halfback collected the ball from Cameron King right on the line, and put in an incredibly courageous move to slam right at the Brisbane defensive line in his efforts to grubber from just the right angle, almost concussing himself after an enormous head-on collision with Adam Blair in the process.
It was the kind of bravery in taking on the line that we only tend to see from Nathan Cleary – at least in terms of more slightly built players willing to take on the game’s biggest men – and it paid dividends, with the Steeden skidding forward and Brad Takairangi launching after it to clutch it to his chest one metre out from the line and slam over shortly after, beating both Milford and Moga to it in the process. Given that Moses had momentarily looked as if he might have to be taken off for an HIA – and might not even recall the try assist – it was even more amazing that he managed a very different but equally impressive try assist a couple of minutes later.
This time, it was dexterity, rather than brute strength and courage, that distinguished his play, ash Moses once again collected the ball from King and then opted for a massive, looping harbour bridge pass that cleared half the field, soaring over Michael Jennings and Corey Norman on the one hand, and Tautau Moga and Jonus Pearson on the other, with Pearson slipping on the turf in his efforts to catch it as Kirisome Auva’a collected it right on the chest and grounded it in a single perfect movement. Whether because the stakes were so high against Brisbane, or because of his outstanding performance against the Tigers the previous week – and the catharsis and closure that came from playing against his former club for the first time – this felt like a watershed moment for Moses, who took over regular kicking duties from Norman to slot the ball through the posts a couple of seconds after.
For all the intensity of those opening twenty minutes, nobody scored a try again until the final six minutes of the game, despite the Broncos gaining a penalty goal and Parra clocking up two penalty goals during that period. What was incredible, however, was that the momentum never let up, with both teams blasting it out like we were in the last stages of finals footy, or even the opening half of Origin 1 this year, in the best kind of tryless passage of play. Certainly, the second stanza wasn’t without its share of dramatic moments, from Norman miraculously catching the high ball right on the line in the midst of a swarm of Broncos defenders only to let it fall right through his hands, toa trip on Jennings from Blair that ended up injuring McCullough enough to send him off the field.
When the next points came, then, they had all the pent-up energy and intensity of fifty minutes of play behind them, and to make things even more emotional they mirrored Parra’s previous efforts, with the blue and gold army putting down two more tries in quick succession as the final siren loomed. Just as their last four-pointer had involved a try assist from Moses to Auvua’a, once again the ex-Tiger read the defence perfectly, sending the Steeden across to the wing moments before Moga took him out with a tackle. From there, Auva’a put in a breathtaking display of dexterity, dancing around an ankle tap from Pearson millimetres away from the line before skipping out of his grasp to slam the Steeden down in a reprise of his magnificent try that now seemed almost a lifetime ago.
By this stage, Parra had pretty much won the game, and Auva’a’s double was more than enough given the emotion that had preceded it. Still, French added the icing on the cake a minute out from the end, collecting the play-the-ball from Manu M’au right on the line and then somehow managing to run through Hunt, McGuire and then Gillett to crash and tumble over the chalk for the final try of the night. In the disparity between French and the big men he was tackling, and between French and M’au, the try had the quality of an optical illusion, with all signs suggesting that it should have been the big second-rower who crashed through the defence, rather than the smallest and lithest player in the Parramatta side.
As it was, French put in his own distinctive take on a twist-and-spin, wiggling and worming his way through three successive tackles, and taking advantage of his smaller girth and stature to slip out of the embrace of McGuire in particular, whose impending hit-up was aimed at a much bigger defensive target. From trailing 12-0 in the first ten minutes, and trailing by two points for much of the second half, the Eels had now doubled the Broncos in 28-14, in their single best game of the 2017 season, and probably their best single game since their most recent salary cap crisis.
With Moses converting right on the siren, it was hard not to feel that the arrival of young Mitchell had also, finally, paid dividends, since with three try assists, and pitch-perfect timing throughout the entire game, he was playing better than at nearly any other point this year – a rousing sign for Parramatta fans, whose exuberance was contagious, and who will hopefully be rewarded with the same display of dexterity and brilliance when the blue and gold army take on the Bulldogs at ANZ when it turns into a Canterbury-Bankstown home venue next week.